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Cold Call Strategy

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Tired of blank stares when you ask students to complete a math activity after you’ve taught the concepts?

I was too.

My first year teaching went a little like this: direct instruction, worksheet, blank stares, chaos, feeling tired, defeated, and worthless.

My second year of teaching our Principal shared the Teach Like A Champion book and asked all of us to focus on 3 strategies. “Cold Calling” was one of the strategies. First, I’d like to acknowledge that Teach Like a Champion has been a hot topic recently and some people disagree with the type of classroom the book fosters. I understand. And if you feel that way about the book, I respect you. I’m choosing to share a strategy that worked for me personally. In my classroom. In my classrooms in South Central LA, East San Jose, and Denver. Teaching high school math intervention to students who have failed math every year since 5th grade. Reviewing this strategy in this blog post is not intended to ignite a debate, I’m just sharing a strategy that has worked for me.

What is cold call in teaching?

If you don’t know what Cold Call is, here’s the definition from Doug Lemov inside of Teach Like A Champion,

“When you cold call, you call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. It’s deceptively simple: you ask a question then call the name of the student you want to answer it. If students see you frequently and reliably calling on classmates who don’t have their hand raised, they will come to expect it and prepare for it.” (pg. 112).

Think popsicle sticks.

You ask a question then choose a popsicle stick with a student name on it to answer it for you.

Why have a cold call classroom?

There are two main reasons I loved using cold call in my classroom that I’ll share with you here.

#1: Real time formative data & checks for understanding

Lemov states that cold calling, “allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically. It’s critical to be able to check what any student’s level of mastery is at any time, regardless of whether he or she is offering to tell you.” (Pg. 112). If you teach students who struggle with math, this is the most important thing you can be doing. Our students are failing math year after year because often their teachers just teach, then assess, then assign a failing grade. When you begin implementing cold call in your classroom you’re able to check for understanding every single day. This will ensure that you’re aware of your students misconceptions and level of mastery at all times. That is powerful!

Dylan William also mentions the cold calling technique in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, and has this to say about the power of utilizing it in the classroom,

“When teachers allow students to choose whether or not to participate - for example, by allowing them to raise their hands to show they have an answer - they are actually making the achievement gap worse, because those who are participating are getting smarter, while those avoiding engagement are forgoing the opportunities to increase their ability.” (pg 81).

#2: Keeps the class moving

When you begin using cold call in your classroom you no longer have to pause after each question you ask and wait for a volunteer. This will keep your classroom moving and keep students engaged making cold call one of my favorite math engagement strategies. For example, how many times do you get blank stares when you ask students for the first step when solving 3x + 4 = 10. Imagine how much more smoothly your classroom would go if you just pulled a name and got an answer. No waiting.

How to use the cold call strategy

Step 1: Community building activity

If you teach students who struggle with math, there can be a lot of fear and anxiety around using a system like cold call in your classroom. I highly encourage you to use it as a community building activity first. For example, pass out index cards to your students and ask them to write their name largely in the middle of the card then decorate the card with drawings or words of their favorite teams, activities, music, etc. Have them share their cards with their classmates before collecting them to be used as your visibly random name generator for when you begin using cold call.

Step 2: Use the structure without math

Do not skip this step! Your students will shut down if you just start asking rapid fire questions about math and using your cold call cards from step 1. Instead, use the cards to ask students to introduce their partner to the class or to get needed supplies for their group.

Step 3: Use it with math

Once you’ve shown your students how you plan to use the cold call cards from step 2, you’re ready to try it with mathematics. I suggest trying it with an activity with multiple correct answers to start like which one doesn’t belong. Post the image, then use the cards to call on students to share a reason why one of the images doesn’t belong. Do not take volunteers. Only rely on the cards to get participation. Then you can use it with any math. Try to ask as many little questions as possible so you can get through your entire deck of cold call cards at least once per period. For example, you can ask

  • Q: What do I do first to solve 2x - 10 = 4? (add 10 to both sides)

  • Q: What do I get when I add 10 to both sides? (2x = 14)

  • Q: What do I do next? (divide by 2)

  • Q: What do I get when I divide by 2? (x = 7)

  • Q: ___, do you agree? I get 7?

We’ve just gotten to hear from 5 different students in one simple problem! When was the last time you had 5 students actively participating in one problem during class?

Step 4: Be ready for students who don’t want to participate

This is one of the main reasons teachers tell me they are hesitant to use cold call in their classrooms. If you’ve built a classroom culture where students know they can make mistakes and not get laughed at, you’re going to be fine. Your students will participate. Side note: if you want tips about building that kind of classroom culture you can check out the resources here. But if you still get some students who aren’t bought into your cold calling structure, tell them that participating this way is your expectation. Remind them that they don’t have to get the question right, they just need to try. If they still won’t participate, ask them to step to the door of your classroom and have a one on one conversation with them when it’s convenient for you about why they don’t want to participate in this way.

Step 5: Be ready for "I don't know"

This is the second most popular reason teachers tell me they don’t want to use cold call in their math classrooms. Similarly to step 4, if you’ve built a classroom culture where students feel safe to make mistakes, this won’t be an issue for you. But if you do get an “IDK” when using your cards, try to break down the question to be even more basic so the student feels some amount of success, but DO NOT allow “IDK” to be an acceptable answer because then everyone will use it to get out of participating. For example, if you ask, “Sebastian, what do I do first to solve 2x - 10 = 4?” and he responds with a shrug and, “I don’t know.” You can ask something like:

  • What might I do?

  • Do you have any guesses at what I might do?

  • We need to move this -10. What’s the opposite of -10?

If he’s really digging in with IDK you can also call on another student for the answer then come back to Sebastian to repeat the answer the next student gave. That’s a last resort option.

Ready for more?

If you want to know exactly how and why to use cold call to increase student engagement and collaboration, you need to check out my free 30 minute mini-workshop.

In it you'll learn a method to help you catch those learning gaps in real time - not weeks later when students take the test and you realize it’s too late - so you see student achievement skyrocket and that you, as the teacher, feel more fulfilled!

You'll walk away with a resource pack that includes a recommended reading list, outline of the 4-step method, and a prerequisite checklist for starting this method in your classroom.

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